YES AND NO
When I was seventeen I was given the extraordinary good fortune of being
able to interview Louis Armstrong, one whom I believe embodies pure genius
itself, and while at this time during the Second World War he was undergoing,
as he declared, tough breaks, he was already an icon in America, and I
had long been a jazz fan, although at that time I could only assemble a
jazz record collection by visiting black homes, combing through their stored
and dusty record collections, and buying what I could. I had absorbed
the dominant judgment that ďWest End BluesĒ is Louisí greatest recording,
and when our conversation ended, he asked if I had a request, and, of course,
I asked for ďThe West End Blues.Ē ďWhatís that?,Ē he asked in perplexity,
ďAinít never heard of it, hum me a little to see if I know it.Ē So
I falteringly hummed, and he cried, ďOh, that!,Ē and as his bandsmen reassembled
after the intermission, he called for it without a title that I could recognize,
and then I heard ďThe West End BluesĒ as I have never heard it before or
since, and heard it with an ecstatic Yes. Perhaps nowhere else can
we know such an immediate Yes than in listening to genuine jazz, one that
is irresistible to its hearer, and one that I must inevitably know as a
theological call, as a call to understand the theological ground of this
Yes. So it is that when I was blocked in attempting to complete Total
Presence, I immersed myself in jazz as I sought a way to an affirmation
of that abyss and emptiness that is here called forth, thereby making possible
the final paragraph of the book, which is all that I have ever published
The arts have commonly had a deep impact upon me as I attempt to think theologically, here I have found genuine inspiration, one open to all. In this perspective, too, theology can be understood as a universal horizon, for there is a depth in art that demands a theological response, or so I have long believed, and it is of prime importance that it is so extraordinarily difficult truly to distinguish the purest expressions of art and religion. It is also of fundamental importance that both the aesthetic and the religious consciousness or sensibility are truly universal, nor can firm lines be apprehended between them in our cultures and societies, it is as though art and religion are not truly or finally distinct, or not so in their deepest and purest expressions. Now if it is modernity alone which has created a truly profane or truly secular art, we can discover here as we can nowhere else in modernity an open expression of a coincidentia oppositorum of the sacred and profane, for our truly profane art is a truly sacred art, and is so most clearly in its very impact. It is the open and final Yes of that art which poses an ultimate theological problem or mystery, and if this is a Yes which is possible only in the depths of an ultimate No or an ultimate abyss, that very No is here finally a Yes, and is so even if we cannot comprehend it. But that it is said and enacted we cannot doubt, or cannot doubt apart from apathy and withdrawal, and even if apathy is universal in our new world, that very universality is a consequence of a deep history, and a history embodied in our imaginative history, and embodied here with a clarity and decisiveness manifest nowhere else.
Perhaps a comparable history is present in the history of our ethical thinking and sensibility, but this has not yet been called forth, except in Nietzscheís profound reversal of historical thinking, which unthinks Western ethical thinking itself. Such an unthinking of ethical thinking can be understood as a truly new and revolutionary ethical thinking, and it does parallel the revolution effected by those ancient prophets who disenacted and reversed the ethical consciousness of their world, hence making possible Nietzscheís understanding of the slave revolt in morality. While this gave us the uniquely modern idea of ressentiment, nothing comparable to ressentiment is possible in an understanding of our imaginative history, for it is impossible for us to understand any genuine art as an expression of No-saying and No-saying alone. Already Nietzsche's initial understanding of Greek tragedy made possible for him an understanding of an ultimate No which is finally an ultimate Yes, this finally released the primal motif of his mature thinking, one at the very center of his final conflict with our nihilism, a conflict truly shattering Nietzsche himself. If Nietzsche could call forth an absolute Yes-saying that is finally an absolute Yes-saying to absolute No-saying itself, this does open up the mystery of our uniquely modern imaginative nihilism, a nihilism finally reversing itself, and reversing itself even in its most purely negative expressions.
This has been a major, if not the major, motif in our deeper hermeneutical unveiling of the modern imagination, one that has profoundly affected me, and without which I could not be a theologian. But is it possible not to think theologically in understanding an absolute No as finally being an absolute Yes? Can we understand tragedy itself without thinking theologically, or fully understand our deeper modern painting and poetry without understanding them theologically? These are certainly impossibilities for me, but my thinking has only all too gradually entered such realms, being fundamentally blocked by all of our existing or manifest theological thinking, and to the extent that liberation has occurred for me, it has only occurred through what the theological world can only recognize as an anti-theological thinking. Yet it is possible to understand a profoundly anti-theological thinking and vision as being overwhelmingly powerful in a uniquely modern imagination, certainly a vision and thinking effecting a dissolution or reversal of all of our given or manifest theological understanding, but thereby it is in genuine continuity with our deeper imaginative history. Already in Homer and in Greek tragedy we can observe such a reversal, a reversal also occurring in the Christian epic tradition from Dante through Joyce, and if it is the purest expressions of the imagination which are the deepest challenges to faith, these nevertheless demand a theological exploration, and do so in their very imagery and language.
I have long known Kafka as the purest challenge to theology in the twentieth century, none of our theologians are so purely theological as is Kafka, a theological purity inseparable from Kafkaís writing itself, here we have been given purely theological inscriptions, and inscriptions truly reversing every possible theological understanding. While Kafka seldom writes the word ĎGodí, nothing is more absent from Kafkaís writing than the absence of God, nowhere else in our world may one discover such a pure guilt, or such a pure abyss; and while a uniquely modern abyss and guilt, these are inseparable from the total presence of an absolute and final mysterium tremendum, one which is an absolute judgment and an absolute judgment alone. It was Walter Strauss who was my primary guide into Kafkaís writing, and while he can read it as an inverted or reverse Kabbalah which is impossible for me, I cannot deny that this is a way whereby the way up is the way down, just as I cannot deny that the very purity of Kafkaís No is finally an ultimate Yes. Buber was the only theologian who deeply responded to Kafka while Kafka was writing, and in his discussion of Kafka in Two Types of Faith, he can conclude by affirming that the eclipse of God which here occurs does not diminish the immediacy of God, in that very immediacy God remains ďthe Savior,Ē and the contradiction of existence becomes for us a theophany. These are extraordinarily daring words theologically, and they disappear in Buberís later understanding of the eclipse of God, but they do unveil an absolute No as an absolute Yes, and if this is possible even in Kafkaís writing, that impossible possibility offers us the genuine possibility of a truly new theological understanding.
Theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr once accused me of being
closed to all possible mystery, but I think that the very reverse of this
is true, I am far rather imprisoned by mystery rather than liberated from
it, and although I have adopted Hegel as my philosophical master,
I have done so only by conjoining Hegel and Nietzsche, thereby refusing
Hegelís pure dissolution of mystery, and his consequent dissolution of
theology itself, even if theology is here truly reborn into a pure and
total philosophy. An Hegelian Yes is a purely conceptual or purely
logical Yes, one wholly transcending every possible interior expression,
and while the Science of Logic can offer a purely logical argument for
that ďcunning of reasonĒ which is teleology or theodicy (in the second
section of its second volume), and conclude by declaring God to be ďpure
personality,Ē this is nonetheless a purely logical thinking in which all
interiority is finally impossible, as Kierkegaard knew so deeply.
Nevertheless, Hegelís philosophy is our fullest philosophy of art, and
our fullest philosophy of religion as well, and just as Hegel is the only
philosopher who has given us comprehensive understandings of both art and
religion, his is our only full and perhaps our only actual philosophy of
Karl Loewith, one of the few who has mastered both Hegel and Nietzsche, had a real impact upon me in arguing that faith can only know the deep meaninglessness of history, whereas it is only purely secular expressions of thinking that can know the meaning and order of history (I heard this argument in his classroom before it was published in Meaning in History). Loewith is here under the impact of both Kierkegaard and Barth, and while he was my only theological ally as a graduate student, I was forced to depart from this way in my own theological thinking, and the primal reason for this is what I ever more comprehensively came to apprehend as the ultimate theological necessity of a total Yes. This is a Yes that Hegel comprehensively understands and enacts, but a Yes that can never be separated or isolated from an absolute No, and Hegel deeply understands an absolute No in his very understanding of self-negation or self-emptying. Yet this is a No which not Hegel but Nietzsche profoundly understands interiorly, which is just why Nietzsche is absolutely necessary to Hegel, and only thereby can a purely and totally dialectical thinking actually be meaningful and real to us. Hence full dialectical thinking is inseparable from a pure and total coincidentia oppositorum, a true and actual coincidentia oppositorum of an absolute Yes and an absolute No, and if this occurs in all genuine dialectical thinking, as perhaps most purely embodied in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, it also can be understood as occurring in our deepest imaginative enactments, and perhaps most clearly so in a uniquely modern imagination.
This is the very imagination which our dominant theological thinking deeply opposes, but the primary texts of this imagination can be understood as sacred texts or scripture, here we have been given a truly canonical writing, a writing demanding not only pure attention but pure absorption, such attention has certainly occurred in our world, but could it occur apart from what the theologian names as revelation? Of course, this could be a false, or illusory, or demonic revelation, and it surely has induced what the theologian can name as idolatry; but idolatry is a truly elusive theological category, and if the deepest idolatry inevitably evokes the deepest iconoclasm, this first occurs in the prophetic revolution of Israel; but this is an iconoclasm most fundamentally directed against the worship of Yahweh, or the worship of Yahweh in its world, and every subsequent expression of this iconoclasm has been an assault upon the dominant theological naming of its own world. Thereby we can understand the modern imagination itself as being profoundly iconoclastic, and if we can discover a genuine rebirth of the ancient prophets in a Van Gogh or a Kafka, this is the rebirth of an absolute judgment, and an absolute judgment enacted and pronounced in that language and imagery most immediately real to us. Is it idolatrous to look upon the painting of Van Gogh or the writing of Kafka as scripture for us, or is it far rather idolatrous to refuse this scripture as genuine scripture, and refuse it if only because it is not an ecclesiastically sanctioned scripture?
These questions were driving questions for me, and they revolve about the possibility of a truly secular theology, or a truly incarnate or embodied theology, a theology open to the theological power of its own world, and of that world which we actually confront. Yet if we can see that fundamentalism is a false or illusory way, and also see that a post-Barthian neo-orthodoxy is equally unreal, and unreal if only because of its deep alienation from our world, then both Augustine and Kierkegaard could once again become real theological models for us, each profoundly embodied their own historical worlds, even if they deeply transfigured those worlds. Just as Augustine discovered the very subject of consciousness, so also Kierkegaard discovered a uniquely modern subjectivity, and while this is a subjectivity only implicitly known by a Descartes, it is truly real with the birth of full modernity, a modernity calling forth an interiority that is wholly inseparable from its purely negative ground. Of course, this is true of Augustine, too, who could discover a freedom of the will that is inseparable from the impotence of the will, and just as both Augustine and Kierkegaard are truly dialectical in their understanding of freedom and grace, this could be renewed in an even more comprehensive form in our world, but only as a consequence of a voyage into that interiority which is most actual and real for us. This is just the point at which every neo-orthodox theology collapses, for it cannot actually enter its own world, and therefore it is inevitably an alien theology, and most alien to its own world.
I have most defied my theological masters and peers by choosing Nietzsche as my theological master, and even if I understand Nietzsche as the culmination of a long theological tradition, he certainly reverses that and every theological tradition, and can justly be understood as the greatest anti-theological thinker in history. How is it possible for a theologian to become a Nietzschean and to remain a theologian? First, it is possible because it is true of Nietzsche himself, now just as Nietzsche could unveil every Western philosopher as at bottom a theologian, no one else has had such a comprehensive understanding of theology; and it cannot be denied that Nietzscheís work is pervaded by an explicitly theological language, and far more so than that of any other modern philosopher apart from Spinoza and Hegel, and even Nietzscheís most ecstatic language is often a clearly theological language, occurring not only in his proclamation of the death of God, but also occurring in his most deeply negative hermeneutics, as in his very discovery of genealogy itself. Here, genealogy ultimately derives from the very advent of the ďbad conscience,Ē a bad conscience which is a purely negative or purely repressed consciousness, one which Nietzsche understands as the advent of an absolute No-saying, and an absolute No-saying which has only actually or only historically been named in the naming of the uniquely Christian God.
While the slave revolt in morality, or the advent of ressentiment itself, occurred in the prophetic revolution of Israel, it is only consummated in the birth of Christianity, which Nietzsche came to know as the only ultimate catastrophe which has occurred in history, so that he could know the death of the Christian God as the only possible source of liberation for humanity, and Nietzsche is our only modern philosopher of an absolute liberation or an absolute redemption, although here he does unveil his deeply Hegelian ground. Not even Kierkegaard could actually think redemption, and while Augustine does truly think redemption, at no other point is he so clearly or perhaps so deeply a Neoplatonic or pagan thinker, and most decisively so because he thinks redemption as eternal return; and all too significantly the scholastic theological understanding of redemption is an understanding of eternal return, that very eternal return or ďrecollectionĒ which Kierkegaard himself could understand as being deeply and purely pagan. Indeed, Nietzsche is that very thinker who has most profoundly reversed every possible understanding of eternal return, and done so in his very discovery of an absolutely new eternal recurrence, an eternal recurrence reversing every movement of eternal return, and doing so most decisively in its final shattering of every possible transcendence, which itself is only possible as a consequence of the death of God. Only Nietzsche has actually thought an apocalyptic redemption, for while this occurs in Hegel, here it occurs in a wholly abstract mode, whereas for Nietzsche the thinking of an apocalyptic redemption is the very enactment of an absolute Yes and Amen.
Clearly this is a truly theological thinking, and while theologians
have understood it as a profoundly anti-theological thinking, it can be
understood as a deep reversal and inversion of a theological thinking and
tradition which Kierkegaard could already understand both as a betrayal
of faith and as culminating in the end of Christendom. It is difficult
to doubt that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are true twins, polar twins it
is true, even opposite twins; but not only are they humanly very much alike,
but also alike as linguistic and poetic creators, and truly parallel to
each other in their unique understandings of the depths of subjectivity
or interiority itself, and of the absolutely primary role of God in those
depths. Nietzsche understands the very birth of interiority as the
consequence of the advent of an absolute No-saying or ďGod,Ē thereby fully
paralleling a Kierkegaardian understanding of Angst or dread or the sickness
unto death, an Angst only possible as the consequence of an absolute negation
or refusal of God; and the understanding of interiority or subjectivity
for both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche becomes ever more fully theological
as it evolves, so that it is only a younger Kierkegaard and a younger Nietzsche
who can fully write about the aesthetic, just as the mature Kierkegaard
and the mature Nietzsche cannot write without breaking the boundaries of
writing itself. Each thinker was a profoundly solitary thinker, perhaps
the most solitary creative thinkers who have ever lived, and just as each
has given us our most profound solitary thinking, each of them was finally
alone, and to this day they remain alone as theological thinkers.
These are only a few of the reasons why I was so deeply attracted to Nietzsche, indeed, hypnotized by Nietzsche, and this was true of many of my theological friends and allies as well; for Nietzscheís pure theological genius is undeniable, the real question revolves about the problem of whether or not Nietzsche is truly and finally a purely pathological theological thinker. Not even Tillich could bring himself to reach this judgment, and just as Tillich was inspired by Nietzsche, and so much so that many critics doubt that there is anything that finally separates them theologically, I began to believe that this is true of Bultmann, too, and certainly of that radical Bultmannianism into which I had been initiated. So at this point I am sympathetic with the assault of orthodox theologians upon both Tillich and Bultmann, but both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche ended theological liberalism even more deeply than they ended theological orthodoxy, and true conservatives have been drawn to both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard because of their profound subversion of all modern liberalism.
One of the principles that I absorbed as a theological student is that genuine faith cannot only absorb the deepest possible challenge but that it becomes even more truly faith in meeting such a challenge. Once again Augustine is a true model here, but so, too, are Pascal and Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky. Is such a movement of faith impossible in late modernity? A dialectical principle is fully present here, that the deepest or truest faith is not possible apart from the deepest No to that faith, and this principle is fully present in all genuine apocalypticism, for an apocalyptic light can only be manifest and real in the purest darkness, just as that light itself can only dawn in an horizon of total darkness. Already this is true in the prophetic revolution of Israel, which is one reason why that revolution is the genuine seed or source of apocalypticism, and just as Christian theology has ever more fully distanced itself from apocalypticism, despite its origin in the purely apocalyptic theology of Paul, it has thereby not only lost or transformed its original Biblical ground, but ever more fully dissolved dialectical thinking itself. True, this has been reborn in Christian revolutionaries such as Augustine, Luther, and Kierkegaard, but reborn even more comprehensively in Hegel and Nietzsche, and if it is Hegel and Nietzsche who are our deepest modern apocalyptic thinkers, they call forth an absolute apocalypse that is an absolute reversal of everything once manifest and real as the uniquely Christian God.
Nietzsche, above all other thinkers, could know the very birth of Christianity as an absolute reversal of Jesus, and while this only occurs in The Antichrist, his last full or complete writing, it occurs as the first volume of what was intended to be his magnum opus, ďThe Revaluation of All Values.Ē Only in the closing months of his creativity could Nietzsche know that in Christianity the gospel or ďgood newsĒ of Jesus becomes dysangel, and everything that Jesus proclaimed and enacted becomes the very opposite of itself. There is a theology much like this in the dialectical thinking of the early Barth, but this is almost wholly lost in the Church Dogmatics, except for its most radical sections, and just as Barth deeply turned away from Kierkegaard in becoming a dogmatician, he thereby turned away from dialectical thinking itself, and since that time genuine dialectical theological thinking has seemingly disappeared. In choosing to become a dialectical theologian I thought of myself as remaining loyal to the early Barth, for it was Barth and not Tillich who was my modern theological model, and while this demands a genuine betrayal of Barth, I joined many other theologians in thinking that it was Barth himself who had most deeply betrayed Barth. This is not unheard of in the history of theology, one has only to think of the late Luther, nor is it unheard of in the history of philosophy, as witness both Plato and Hegel, but it is unheard of in our imaginative history, unheard of in our greatest artists and poets, it is as though the genuine artist has been given a vocation that cannot be betrayed, and if only here there is a deep distinction between thinking and the imagination.
Of course, both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche crossed every division between thinking and the imagination, and while the thinking of each deeply transformed itself in the course of its development, it nonetheless remains truly consistent with itself in that very development, and although Kierkegaardís thinking seemingly culminates with a total and final No, Nietzscheís culminates with a final and total Yes, and this despite the fact that madness finally consumed him. Is that very madness a decisive sign of the pathological ground of this Yes, and was it thereby an inevitable consequence of that unique way which Nietzsche had enacted, and thus a paradigmatic model of the consequences of every true rebellion against God? Many theologians view Nietzscheís madness in this way, just as many assert that there is no possible genuine atheism, or none which is not pathological and deranged. And this leads to a fundamental question: is atheism an actual possibility, and has it ever truly and actually occurred? I became much taken with Lucien Fabreís book on Rabelais which argues that atheism did not come into existence historically until the end of the sixteenth century, but it soon gains a deep historical power, and it played a decisive role in the French Revolution, that most paradigmatic of all modern historical events, so that both Blake and Hegel could know the French Revolution as the dawning of a universal death of God. Certainly atheism is not an illusion in this context, unless modernity itself is finally an illusion, an illusion now coming to an end, so that conservative theologians can greet ďpostmodernityĒ as a liberation from an illusory or pathological modernity.
Nevertheless, the question of the possibility of a real atheism is both a genuine and an inescapable theological question, and if it is only in the modern world that we can speak of a deep atheism, that is an atheism that can be and has been discovered in all of our genuinely modern philosophical thinking, and one that has ever more comprehensively pervaded a uniquely modern society and world. Indeed, there are those who understand atheism as an inevitable expression of faith itself, this has become my own position, but I did not reach it apart from a genuine struggle, and with many false paths; here I can see no organic development in my own thinking, and if my theological voyage has been one into an ever deeper atheism, it has nonetheless become ever fuller theologically in that very atheism. Of course, there is a kind of atheism in deep mysticism, one finally dissolving every image and idea of God, but it is clear that such a movement realizes a God or Godhead beyond ďGod,Ē or beyond everything that is given us or is manifest as God. So, too, there is a penultimate atheism which can be understood as essential to faith, one dissolving or negating every God who is manifest apart from the depths of faith, which is to say every God whom we commonly know and name. But these are not final atheisms, and the real question here is whether or not a final or ultimate atheism is possible.
Most theologians affirm that the apparent atheism of our world
is an illusory atheism, one which is deeply groundless, and will inevitably
wither away when depth is called forth. But this is an extraordinarily
difficult task theologically, and above all so in our world, so that Barth
was wise in condemning all such apologetics, which he could know as a betrayal
of faith, and surely our apologetics has been incapable of employing
a language of depth which atheists can recognize as their own. I
believe that it is theologically irresponsible to think that atheism is
an illusion, here I side with the fundamentalists who know modernity as
a deep and ultimate atheism, and, so, too, inevitably side at this point
with those conservative theologians who know modernity itself as an absolute
negation of God, I simply do not see how this can genuinely be denied,
and it is certainly a fundamental reason why our liberal theologies have
withered away. I also believe that there is an ultimate Either-Or
here, which I attempted to formulate in the concluding chapter of The Gospel
of Christian Atheism: either a traditional faith or a uniquely modern atheism,
for I can find no middle way between them. Here, I alienated myself
from my theological friends, but I did not and do not see how I could have
avoided this, even if I could have prosecuted it far more adroitly.
Yet it is absolutely crucial here to understand our uniquely modern atheism,
and while I do not think that I was irresponsible in choosing Blake, Hegel
and Nietzsche as being deep and pure embodiments of this atheism, this
does bring our atheism into a new perspective, for this is a genuinely
theological atheism, and one which I was persuaded can be understood as
a Christian atheism. Then atheism itself is given a new theological
meaning, for deep atheism is not simply a negation, it is an ultimate affirmation
in that very negation, and that affirmation occurs in its very negation
of God, and above all in its deep and ultimate negation of the uniquely
This is most clear in Nietzsche, but it is most comprehensive in Hegel, and most visionary in Blake, and all of these negations are truly missing in modern theology, which impels one to ask if we have yet been given a truly modern theology, or a theology which can be truly or fully meaningful in our world. Moreover, Blake, Hegel, and Nietzsche speak more fully or more comprehensively of God than any other modern writers, one could even say that their very language is inseparable from our deepest modern language about God, is this a language that simply cannot be entered theologically, or only entered with a language of assault and refusal? The theologian also has grave difficulty in responding to an ultimate heresy, but the question can be asked if there is a single modern artist or thinker who is not a deep heretic, and heretical not only interiorly, but heretical in their deepest enactments. A dramatic demonstration of this occurs in Cornelius Fabroís God in Exile, a stunning and comprehensive history of modern philosophical atheism, surely the best study of its kind, and one wherein we can understand our atheism as becoming ever deeper and more comprehensive in its very organic development or evolution. Such philosophical atheism is the very opposite of a simple or literal atheism, for it occurs in the purity of thinking itself, nor can agnosticism be found in this atheism, an agnosticism alien to genuine thinking; no, our philosophical atheism is a truly heretical atheism, and it is genuinely heretical in its very negation of the Christian God. If Nietzsche is our last metaphysical thinker, he is our purest metaphysical atheist, yet here is a metaphysical atheism which is a truly theological atheism, one only possible by way of the deepest and most ultimate negation of God.
Most theologians think that such a negation is purely illusory,
but it is very difficult to deny that this has actually occurred in the
modern world, and most baffling to the theologian, occurred most deeply
by way of the very language and movement of faith itself. This is
clearest in Blake and Hegel, and just as Blake is our most Biblical modern
poet, Hegel is our only philosopher who has employed the purest language
of faith in his deepest philosophical realizations. In Hegel and
in Hegel alone, the ultimate movements of creation, fall, incarnation,
crucifixion, and resurrection are realized in a purely philosophical thinking,
and, most paradoxically of all, this occurs by way of a philosophical realization
of the death of God, which occurs for the first time in the Phenomenology
of Spirit, and if this is our most revolutionary modern philosophical work,
it is inseparable from the passage of the Crucifixion itself into the depths
of thinking. But at this very time, Blakeís revolutionary imaginative
vision was incorporating these primal theological movements, embodying
for the first time a truly radical vision into the fullness of the imagination,
one inseparable from a comprehensive enactment of the death of God, and
for the first time the death of God is fully enacted imaginatively.
To this day, our theologians refuse to recognize these revolutionary breakthroughs
as Christian enactments, and this despite the fact that an explicitly Christian
language is more primal for Blake and Hegel than it is for any other modern
poet or thinker; are they refused by our theologians because they are such
ultimate heretics, surely the deepest heretics in our history. It
is remarkable how little attention is given in modern theology to all deep
and ultimate heresy, and this despite its overwhelming power in our world,
it is as though such heresy is theologically unspeakable, and this is doubly
ironic for the Christian theologian, since both Jesus and Paul are portrayed
as heretics in the New Testament.
I often wonder if I am a deeper heretic than my more distinguished peers, and even wondered if it is possible to be a genuine theologian without being a heretic, can one forget that Aquinas himself was once assaulted by high ecclesiastical authority as a heretic? Newman created modern historical theology by identifying the ancient heresies as dead fossils marking false and lifeless paths in the organic evolution of Christian doctrine, and while our modern heresies may be false, they are certainly very much alive, and surely more alive in our world than are our modern theological orthodoxies. Both Hegel and Blake assaulted the theological orthodoxies of their world as being truly non-Christian, and Hegel could understand such orthodoxy in a way fully paralleling Newmanís understanding of heresy; for it is orthodoxy itself which ceases to evolve in the modern world, which alone is a decisive sign of its non-Christian ground. Newman was impelled into his evolutionary theological thinking by a realization of the immense distance between modern Catholic dogma and the New Testament, but now what is seemingly only a Catholic theological problem has been realized as a universal Christian theological problem, and nowhere has it been more deeply resolved than in Hegel's evolutionary understanding of the profound transformation of the Western world as a whole, one certainly comprehending a transformation of Christian dogma, and the deepest possible transformation of that dogma. Inevitably, this is an ultimate transformation of the deepest Christian dogma, one surely occurring in both Blake and Hegel, but that transformation is in genuine continuity with a uniquely Christian history, for Christianity alone among the great religions of the world has profoundly transformed itself in its very historical embodiment.
Is it possible to understand Nietzsche himself as a genuine Christian thinker in this context? To the Protestant, the decisive sign of a Christian thinker is an ultimate understanding of sin, and surely Nietzsche beyond every other thinker has understood and decisively called forth the absolute impotence and the absolute perversity of a wholly fallen or repressed humanity, one overwhelmingly revealed in the uniquely modern realization of the death of God, in the wake of which the world as a whole becomes the embodiment of an absolute nothingness. Here, is an enactment of the deepest possible No, but an enactment apart from which there can be no absolute Yes, and if it is Barth alone among our modern theologians who has enacted a Yes which is impossible apart from an absolute No, this enactment is far more comprehensive in Nietzscheís writing than in Barthís, and far deeper and far more dialectical, too; for it is Nietzsche and not Barth who calls forth an absolute Yes and an absolute No that are finally indistinguishable, and this is also true of both Blake and Hegel. Is this an ultimate theological truth which is finally beyond theology itself, or beyond anything which we can know as theology? Is theology itself by an innermost necessity unable to reach that faith which it claims as its ultimate ground, and therefore finally a betrayal of that ground? These are questions that have been forced upon theology, and even forced upon it by modern ďatheismĒ itself, an atheism truly going beyond our theologies, and going beyond them in their very depth.
If we confine ourselves to the ďatheismsĒ of Blake, Hegel, and Nietzsche, one decisive sign distinguishes them from all of our theologies, and that is their very enactment of a total Yes, a Yes which is truly all in all, but only insofar as it enacts an absolute and total No. Theologically, what is most difficult to grasp is that an absolute No to God is ultimately an absolute Yes. Already Boehme could call forth a purely negative potency in the Godhead which makes possible the divine life itself, and when that negative potency is renewed or resurrected in German Idealism it becomes actuality itself, and this also occurs in our deepest modern imaginative realizations. Nowhere else is an absolute No more fully manifest as an absolute Yes, and if it is modernity alone which has known an absolute negativity, or an absolutely actual absolute negativity, this is a pure negativity finally realizing apocalypse itself, or that apocalypse which is a final and total Yes. Just as Blake was our first fully apocalyptic poet, and Hegel our first fully apocalyptic thinker, this is an apocalypse only occurring by way of an absolute negation of God, one ecstatically recurring in Nietzscheís final apocalyptic vision, and here Nietzsche is clearly in continuity with both Blake and Hegel.
One of the most profound if not the most profound innovations of the Fourth Gospel is that it so purely integrates the divine movements of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and apocalypse, this is a revolutionary innovation which is deeply reborn in both Blake and Hegel, but it also can be understood as being reborn in Nietzsche, too, and most clearly so in Nietzscheís enactment of the death of God as apocalypse itself. Apocalypse can only finally be known as an absolute Yes, but it is a Yes inseparable from an absolute No, and a Yes finally indistinguishable from that No. Only that No makes possible this Yes, or only crucifixion makes possible resurrection, but crucifixion is ultimately the crucifixion of God, and no one has known this more deeply than did Blake, Hegel, and Nietzsche. Yet apocalyptically crucifixion is a total Yes or a total apocalypse, an apocalypse which is all in all, one lying wholly beyond every given or manifest Western theological understanding, and yet luminously embodied in the depths of our uniquely modern ďatheism,Ē an atheism which if only thereby can be understood as a truly Christian atheism.